“It is vital that the UK remains in the EU”. This is Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s view on a possible Brexit. Rome and London share the same perspective on the need to change the current European model. Renzi himself has already backed some of the United Kingdom’s own requests, but with some red lines on restrictions on freedom of movement, for example. Italy regards this as an important precept to defend and is seriously concerned about the negative spillover that Cameron’s request might have on the many Italian workers residing in the UK. Although differences persist on the political level, Italy agrees with most of the economic reforms the UK wants to trigger: enhancing the single market, especially in services, digital, and energy, improving competitiveness and cutting the red tape for small enterprises, and pushing forward TTIP negotiations.
Prime Minister David Cameron will not need to do much to convince Renzi on the UK’s activation of the “emergency brake” clause. Furthermore, flanking Germany on Brexit renegotiations might also bring in a significant political advantage for Italy. While France is more concerned with domestic security matters, Spain is without a government and Poland is far from Europe, by supporting Berlin’s views, Italy might score a point in redefining Europe’s power balance and improve relations between Berlin and Rome. During their recent bilateral talks, both Renzi and Merkel declared that they were “profoundly federalist and united in their will to have an ever stronger Union capable of responding to the economic and migration crises”.
The differences between the economic and the political aspects of Brexit’s renegotiations are clearly detectable from the joint letter of December 2015 by Italian and British Foreign Ministers, in which it was stated that: “Italy and the United Kingdom have two very different ideas of Europe, but this does not prevent them from working together for a better EU that can also be a two-speed one, however avoiding the risk of Brexit.” In other words, notwithstanding different views, it remains in everyone's interest to avoid a Brexit. In Italy’s view, the best way to proceed is to build stronger governance within the euro area, but with safeguards for countries that are not included, whereby the federalist eurozone can be supported by the construction of a wider European Union that could amount to more than 28 separated states.
Brexit has triggered an intense debate among Eurosceptic parties. The Northern League and Five Star Movement in Italy have been the strongest advocates of a possible imitation of Brexit in Italy. Matteo Salvini, MEP and secretary general of Northern League, has launched a petition to collect signatures for a similar EU referendum. In his view, Italy’s current problems can be traced back to “foolish decisions taken at EU level. And since the British people will have the chance to vote democratically in 2016 to say yes or no, we will offer to the Italian people the same possibility to choose: in or out. Either this Europe changes, or Italy must once again become Italy.” Beppe Grillo, leader of the Five Star Movement, exploited Brexit to continue his anti-Europe battle: “The referendum in Britain on the UK’s permanence in Europe will have explosive consequences on the future evolution of the EU. Whatever results come out of the ballot box, it will be the beginning of a radical change. If the Five Star Movement were in government, Italy would follow the same path: we need to arrange a plan B to be safe. The sooner you do it, the better: it is time to dismantle the eurozone and the euro, in order to revive not only Italy, but also the whole of Europe.”
The debate on the UK’s permanence in Europe is certainly more acute in the Italian press than in the public opinion. The media appear to be seriously concerned by the possibility of a Brexit and have commented rather positively the latest draft of agreement. Nonetheless, there is a widespread perception that Italy is one of the few states disadvantaged by the EU and that where others have obtained the privileges they are ask for, Italy has not. The concession of a “special status” to the UK is currently being presented as just the latest in a wide range of exceptions granted to northern European member states (suspension of Schengen, circumvention of sanctions policy), which are currently denied to Rome when it asks for more flexibility in its budget.
The issue of Brexit has once more brought to the surface that the current EU does not perform well and needs to be reformed. Renegotiations to avoid a Brexit may bring a positive influence to this process, but anti-European impulses have to be set to one side if a constructive dialogue on EU is to take place.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.